God Can Take Care of Himself

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1 Samuel 5:1-12 (The ark’s stay)

INTRODUCTION: Please take your Bibles and open with me to the book of 1 Samuel 5. Our message series is called “The Life of Samuel,” but as we saw last week, Samuel has disappeared from the story line at this point in the book. Instead of Samuel, chapters four, five and six all concentrate on the ark.

The ark was a wooden chest overlaid with gold about four feet long, two feet wide and two feet high. Its cover was made of pure gold with two cherubim hammered out of gold on top. The ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. (Hebrews 9:4).

But the ark was more than just a chest. The ark was the visible symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites. So when the Israelites lost the ark in battle, it was as if they had lost God himself. Last week we looked at the capture of the ark by the Philistines. This week we will look at what happened when the Philistines brought the ark back to their own land.

(Read text: 1 Samuel 5:1-12)

God can take care of himself. I wish we truly understood that as Christians. I mean, we all believe it. We know that God is God, and that he can take care of himself, but we don’t always act as if we believed it. This morning’s text looks at the ark’s stay in the land of the Philistines and demonstrates clearly the fact that God doesn’t need you or me to take care of him. God can take care of himself. So let’s look at some biblical principles we find illustrated in this text.

I. God is Lord of all the earth.

First of all, God is Lord of all the earth. Acts 17:24 says, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.” (Acts 17:24) As Lord of all, God rules everything in the universe, including all that takes place here on planet earth.

    A. God is not surprised by circumstances

That tells us a number of things. First of all, it tells us that God is not surprised by circumstances. We may be, but God is not. As we saw last week, the Israelites were shocked by the capture of the ark. Poor Eli fell backwards off his chair and broke his neck when he heard the news. When Eli’s daughter-in-law heard the news, she went into premature labor and died in childbirth. The whole nation was in sudden grief and mourning at the capture of the ark.

But none of this surprised God. When the Philistines captured the ark, they didn’t catch God off guard. God not only knew the Philistines would capture the ark in battle, God allowed them to do so. This was all part of God’s plan to discipline the Israelites for their sin and to demonstrate his power to the Philistines. It looked like God’s people had lost and God’s enemies had won, but that was not the case at all.

This is important for us to remember any time you face a setback in life. God is still in control. He is Lord of all the earth. God is not surprised by circumstances.

    B. God is not limited by geography

Secondly, God is not limited by geography. After the Philistines captured the ark, they proudly brought it back to their home territory. At first they brought it from the Israelites’ camp in Ebenezer to the city of Ashdod. (See map) Ashdod was a coastal city about three miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. It was also one of five major cities for the Philistines. (Joshua 13:3)

The Philistines probably felt confident now that they had Israel’s God on their home turf. But God is Lord of all the earth, and therefore he is not limited by geography. You can never get a home court advantage on God because the whole earth belongs to him.

Now it took the Philistines awhile to figure this all out. When it didn’t work out having the ark in Ashdod, they moved it to the city of Gath. Gath was another one of their major cities. Goliath came from Gath. Gath was further inland and closer to the Israelite border. Perhaps they thought if they moved the ark closer to its home the judgments would stop? But that didn’t work, so next they moved the ark north to Ekron, another major city, even closer to Israel’s border. But that didn’t help either. No matter where they moved the ark, God was still beating them on their home turf. And why was that? Because God is not limited by geography.

This is an important principle for us to grasp, too. Most of the false gods and idols throughout history were tribal gods or national gods who were tied to certain locations. But not the one true God. The one true God is not limited to a certain time or place. He is not limited to a building or a specific denomination or a specific country. The good news of Jesus Christ is for all the world, even for those places that are hostile to Christianity.

And so we should not be afraid to talk about Jesus anywhere. Sure, it’s “safe” to talk about Jesus at church, but we should be talking about Jesus at work and at school and in our neighborhoods as well. We should be bringing the gospel to the tribes and peoples of the world who are still unreached. We should be stepping out of our comfort zones, unafraid to enter enemy territory. Why? Because God is Lord of all the earth. He is not limited by geography.

    C. God is not threatened by competition

Thirdly, God is not threatened by competition. When the Philistines first brought the ark to Ashdod and put it in the temple of their god Dagon, they thought they had Israel’s God beat. To capture an enemy’s god was to conquer him, so putting the ark in Dagon’s temple was a sign of conquest for them. To the Philistines it meant that their god was superior to Yahweh. The statue of their god Dagon towered on his pedestal over the puny ark. Now Israel’s God would be forced to serve Dagon, the god of the Philistines.

So who was this Dagon? Dagon was a well known god in Old Testament times. Some considered him to be the father of Baal, another famous Canaanite god. He was worshiped in the Middle East long before the Philistines arrived there, and he was still worshiped in Ashdod as late as 50 B.C. (1 Maccabees 10:83-85; 11:14) He was not the Philistines’ original god, but they adopted him as their main god after they moved into the Middle East. For example, in the book of Judges when the Philistines conquered Samson we read that “the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, ‘Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.’” (Judges 16:23)

So the Philistines put the ark in the temple with their god, Dagon. But you know what? God is not threatened by competition. The idols of the world are nothing to him. 1 Corinthians 8:4 says, “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.” (1 Corinthians 8:4) God wasn’t scared when the ark was put in the temple with Dagon. God is Lord of all the earth, and he is not threatened by competition.

So that’s our first principle this morning. God is Lord of all the earth. He is not surprised by circumstances. He is not limited by geography. He is not threatened by competition.

II. God is not served by human hands.

Our second principle is this: God is not served by human hands. That simply means God does not need human beings to help him. Acts 17:25 says, “He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:25) This principle is also marvelously illustrated for us here in 1 Samuel 5.

    A. God does not need us to watch over him

When we say God is not served by human hands, we mean first of all that God does not need us to watch over him. When the ark was captured, I’m sure the Israelites wondered, “Who would take care of it? Who would tend to the temple now? Who would light the candles?” God wasn’t worried about any of that. God is the one who watches over us. He is the one who gives us life and breath and everything else. God is not served by human hands. God does not need us to watch over him.

    B. God does not need us to protect him

Not only that, God does not need us to protect him. The Philistines put the ark of God in the temple of Dagon deep inside Philistine territory. “Oooh, scary. What’s going to happen to the ark now?” Well what happened? The very first morning when the Philistines got up, “There was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD!” (1 Samuel 5:3) The expression “on his face” is an expression of worship. Dagon was bowing down in worship before the God of the Israelites. He was doing carpet time before the ark of the Lord.

I love what it says next in verse 3: “They took Dagon and put him back in his place.” (1 Samuel 5:3) Isn’t that great? Not only is their god face down in worship before the ark, they have to lift him up and put him back in his place. In other words, God can take care of himself, but not Dagon. Dagon is helpless on the floor and needs some one to help him get back up on his pedestal.

So the ark is all alone, deep inside enemy territory, and God is doing just fine. He doesn’t need any backup. He doesn’t need Israel to launch a search and rescue mission. He will bring the ark back to Israel himself when he is good and ready.

God does not need us to protect him. God is not dependent on anyone. He is completely different from the pagan gods who needed the sacrifices of the people to give them life and energy. Not God. God is not served by human hands. He does not need us to protect him.

    C. God does not need us to defend him

And thirdly, God does not need us to defend him. I want you to remember that the next time you see someone railing against God, whether at the office or on TV or in some book. We can sometimes get so bent out of shape when people attack God, but really, you don’t need to worry. Sure, speak up, stand up for your faith, say a good word for God any time that you can, but don’t ever feel that God needs you to defend him. Anytime we think God can’t get along without us, we are guilty of pride.

I think about some of the very vocal atheists who have written books in recent years attacking God and Christianity. Now it is important to answer people’s questions about God, and we should know how to defend our faith, but when we feel like we must somehow defend God from all these attacks, we are forgetting who God is.

It reminds me of the philosopher Voltaire who lived back in the 1700’s. Voltaire predicted the church would soon die out and that in fifty years no one would even remember Christianity anymore. As usual, God got the last laugh. Fifty years later Voltaire was dead, and the church was still going strong. Not only that, Voltaire’s former house had become the headquarters for the Geneva Bible society and was being used for printing Bibles!

So that’s the second principle in this passage: God is not served by human hands. He does not need us to watch over him. He does not need us to protect him. He does not need us to defend him.

III. God will judge the world with justice.

And then there is one more principle I would like us to look at from this passage, and that is that God will judge the world with justice. God allowed the Philistines to capture the ark in order to discipline the Israelites. But when the Philistines acted as though they had captured the ark because Dagon was superior, God brought swift and painful judgment on them. Acts 17:31 says, “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31) How will God judge the world?

    A. God will judge the false idols of the world

First of all, God will judge all the false idols of the world. You remember the Philistines first put the ark in Dagon’s temple at Ashdod. That was a big mistake. If they had only read the Ten Commandments that were actually inside the ark, they would have seen the very first one which said, “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) God will not share his glory with another. It is interesting that the ark here is no longer called “the ark of god,” but rather “the ark of the Lord,” which is literally, “the ark of Yahweh.” The Philistines have set up a confrontation here, and we are about to witness a Yahweh vs. Dagon smack down.

We already saw how that first morning they found Dagon stretched out on the floor before the ark. They picked him up and put him back in his place (remember because he couldn’t do it himself), “but the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.” (1 Samuel 5:4)

And so the next day it happened again. God was showing the Philistines that what had happened was no coincidence or accident. Even worse, this time Dagon’s neck and hands were broken off when he fell down before the ark. The cutting off of the hands and head was a means of military execution in those days. So Dagon is first humbled before the Lord, then shown to be helpless, and then finally executed in military style within the confines of his own temple, his head and hands broken off and lying on the threshold.

Verse 5 tells us, “That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold.” (1 Samuel 5:5)

I love that! For the rest of their days, every single time the Philistines step over the threshold, they are reminded that Yahweh defeated their god Dagon.

And just as God judged Dagon, he will judge all the false idols of the world. That includes the many things we can sometimes put before God in our own lives. God will judge them for what they are – false idols of the heart that we have worshiped instead of God.

    B. God will judge those who stand against him

So first, God will judge the false idols of the world. Secondly, God will judge all those who stand against him. You might remember Hannah’s song from earlier in the book of 1 Samuel. She closed out that song by saying, “Those who oppose the LORD will be shattered. He will thunder against them from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth.” (1 Samuel 2:10) And so we see God judging the Philistines for their arrogance by sending tumors among them. Verses 6-8:

The LORD’s hand was heavy upon the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation upon them and afflicted them with tumors. When the men of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy upon us and upon Dagon our god.” So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and asked them, “What shall we do with the ark of the god of Israel?” (1 Samuel 5:6-8)

The word for tumor is a word that can mean “swelling.” We will learn in chapter six that God also sent an infestation of rats along with the tumors. Some Biblical scholars think the Philistines may have been struck with some form of the bubonic plague. But whatever it was, the men of Ashdod rightly recognized it as God’s judgment on them for capturing the ark. So they gathered the five rulers of the Philistines together and asked them, “What shall we do?”

They answered, “Have the ark of the god of Israel moved to Gath.” So they moved the ark of the God of Israel. But after they had moved it, the LORD’s hand was against that city, throwing it into a great panic. He afflicted the people of the city, both young and old, with an outbreak of tumors. (1 Samuel 5:8-9)

The Philistine leaders proposed a test. They moved the ark to Gath to see if that would stop the tumors, but it only made things worse. The city of Gath was thrown into a great panic and now both young and old were afflicted with the tumors. Verses 10 and 11:

So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. As the ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.” So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, “Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people.” For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy upon it. (1 Samuel 5:10-11)

God’s judgment continued, and it continued to get worse. At Ekron people actually started dying from the plague. So now the people were desperate. They were no longer asking, “What shall we do?” but rather saying, “Send it away! Get the ark out of here! Send it back to its own place before it kills us all!”

God will judge those who stand against him. The Philistines tried moving the ark three times, and each time things only got worse. Strike three, you’re out! Dale Ralph Davis writes in his commentary: “This was no tame God the Philistines had ‘conquered.’ The ark had fallen into their hands, but they had now fallen into Yahweh’s hand.” (Davis, 1 Samuel, p. 61) The book of Hebrews says: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31) God will judge those who stand against him.

    C. All will eventually acknowledge Him as Lord

And then thirdly, all will eventually acknowledge him as Lord. Look at verse 12: “Those who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven.” (1 Samuel 5:12)

God’s ark was captured and brought deep into enemy territory. What happened? God worked things such that the Philistines desperately moved the ark from city to city. It was almost as if God was marching in triumph from one major Philistine city to the next. God had triumphed over his enemies, and finally they acknowledged his superiority. Verse 12 tells us, “Their cry went up to heaven.”

One day all people will eventually acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord of all. Philippians 2 says that “At the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11)

God will judge the false idols of the world, God will judge those who stand against him, and all will eventually acknowledge him as Lord.

CONCLUSION: Do you want to know the ultimate proof that God can take care of himself? The ultimate proof that God can take care of himself is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. You are never more helpless than when you are dead. When Jesus died on the cross, the disciples thought it was all over. They took him down from the cross, they laid his body in the grave, and they went back to their homes to grieve and to mourn. Jesus, the Son of God, was dead and buried. The disciples’ faith was shattered.

But on the third day Jesus rose again. Death and the grave could not hold him. Jesus had died on the cross and come back to life victorious over sin and death. Do you want proof that God can take care of himself? Look no further than the resurrection.

God is God. He is Lord.

    1) He is Lord of all the earth.
    2) He is not served by human hands.
    3) He will judge the world with justice.

God can take care of himself.

© Ray Fowler

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